Through 100 objects, Vidya Dehejia's new book makes a case for multiplicity of voices to thrive in India
A new book on Indian history is significant at this time because history continues to be a touchy topic in India, and now more so when the idea of a Hindu rashtra has acquired greater currency.
Who owns history? Is Indian history governed by the much-trumpeted idea that its past glory had to do with a single religion? Or did Indian history evolve from cross-cultural and external influences? Is religion the only factor that shapes our history? The art historian Vidya Dehejia’s new book, India: A Story Through 100 Objects, can be situated in this debate, even though it reflects on India’s multi-cultural past without referencing present-day concerns. Critics perceive some of these concerns as attempts to rewrite history, which include recent changes to India’s historic built environment, the renaming of roads and cities, revisions of school textbooks, etc.
The book’s cover sets the tone for these questions. It features a 17th century gold falcon which was believed to have been “a prized possession” of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The image of the falcon, studded with emeralds, diamonds, rubies, sapphires, is placed over a neat navy-blue background, somewhat suggesting the cover of an official document. The falcon, belonging to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, is made to look like an insignia (of authority). Next to it is the book’s title, the name of the author and the publisher (Roli Books).
In its choice of a luxurious and mysterious looking falcon on the cover, the book offers an alternate view to the popular ‘representations’ of India, which are often accompanied by images of the ascetic Bharat Mata or the stately Ashokan Lion Capital, etc (which are featured in the book’s inside pages, though). Because the book’s cover features an object from India’s Islamic/Mughal past, it can be interpreted as a critical response to contemporary India’s superimposition of a monolithic culture, based on a religion, over its diverse heritage, and its minorities. But the book sends across this message in subtle, indirect ways, without a direct confrontation with the acrimonious political discourses of the day. For example, the book’s introduction ('What’s in a Name?’) shatters the prevalent myth of India being a land of only the Hindus:
The name India became attached to the land mass of the Indian subcontinent during the centuries BCE when the Sindhu river, today’s Indus, was the landmark for invading armies of the Greeks who referred to the territory itself as Indu, a corruption of the name Sindhu, and to its people as Indu/Hindu. The terms Hindustan and Al-Hind were applied to this landmass from at least the ninth century.
Hindustan referred to the entire geographical subcontinent – it meant neither a Persianate India nor the land of the Hindu religion – and it retained that connotation into the twentieth century.
In this vein, the book traces India’s history through different lenses — and not just on the basis of religion — of inter-cultural encounters, Indian Ocean trade, cosmopolitanism, temple culture, luxury, human body, colonial era art, etc. It is a reasonably weighty publication that is rich with a hundred illustrations of sculptures, paintings, folios, and other objects of great antiquity, such as an intricate Jewish Marriage Contract, a painted and dyed cotton chintz with the story of Don Quixote, a regal looking bird-shaped tabernacle monstrance (from Goa’s Museum of Christian Art), among others.
From the 20th century, the book has works by Rabindranath Tagore, MF Husain, Mrinalini Mukherjee, and Subodh Gupta. But the artwork that speaks more to our present times is a perspective drawing, by the Scottish artist-architect William Walcott, of the Viceroy’s House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) in New Delhi. These days, as you drive past the India Gate in New Delhi, its adjacent lawns are dug up to pave the way for the redevelopment of the Central Vista, where government ministries, the parliament, the National Museum, and other important buildings are currently located. Historians, researchers, artists, etc, have vehemently opposed the project because of concerns over the future of historic buildings that reflect India’s colonial and post-independence past. Viewed in present-day India, Walcott’s drawing naturally evokes a deep sense of nostalgia towards our history that we have grown up to associate with as an image of India, and which brings back the questions: what kind of an image will a redeveloped Central Vista create for India’s public and the world? By implication, is the making of a new Indian identity, derived from dramatic changes in its architectural landscape, going to be more inclusive, tolerant and respectful of other faiths?
If history never dies, then an 18th century watercolour of the Mughal king Aurangzeb holding an audience in his darbar is a clear example of the past’s living presence. A falcon sits on his right hand, and a halo surrounds him in the painting.
The debate over whether he was a bigoted emperor or not is still fresh in public memory. In the passages on arguably the most talked-about Mughal ruler today, Dehejia paints the portrait of a man who was neither a hero nor villain, but a “complex” and “multi-faceted” individual. There is a brief account of his reign in the book, which included the execution of a Sikh guru and the destruction of two north Indian temples for political, not religious, reasons. Dehejia adds that “he touched no temple in the south.” At the same time, the passage also notes his thoughtfulness towards Hindus, Brahmins, Jains, Parsis through other actions. What is also worth note are these lines that show him in a different light, where he is expressing a feeling of sadness and emptiness around the time of his death:
On his deathbed, he wrote to his son Azam Shah: ‘My precious life has passed in vain. God is here, but my dimmed eyes do not see his splendour.’
A new book on Indian history is significant at this time because history continues to be a touchy topic in India, and now more so when the idea of a Hindu rashtra has acquired greater currency. Amidst the convenient categorisation of people and histories into black-and-white binaries, there is a need for nuance in historic storytelling, as Dehejia’s writing demonstrates in the book.
A professor of Indian and South Asian art history at Columbia University in New York, Dehejia is widely known for her research on Buddhist art, Indian temple architecture and bronze sculptures, and the art of British India. Drawing upon her long experience of teaching in the United States, Dehejia makes art history and its complex periods an effortless read for non-specialised readers of art.
The publication's hundred artworks representing India’s diverse history make a case for the fact that there should be a room for multiplicity of voices to exist and thrive. It emphasises the multicultural history of the land — an aspect of history that is easily forgotten in a deeply polarised and intolerant climate. But it makes this case very cautiously, leaving the reader to read between the lines and find relations with how life is being dramatically altered today.
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